On March 25, 2021 the Supreme Court issued its decision in the Ford Motor Co. v. Montana Eighth Judicial District Court, et al., and in doing so affirmed the exercise of personal jurisdiction in products liability cases over out-of-state defendants, when claims are brought by an in-state plaintiff for in-state injuries. In this case, Ford had urged the Supreme Court to extend the Bristol-Myers Squibb doctrine, which had rejected the exercise of personal jurisdiction over claims by out-of-state plaintiffs against out-of-state defendants for out-of-state injuries. Based on the Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. decision, Ford maintained that specific jurisdiction should require a causal link between the defendant’s contact with the forum state and the claims in the suit. This standard would not be met in the cases at hand, as the cars involved in accidents were not designed, manufactured, or first sold in the forum states. However, a majority of the court made up of five justices rejected this argument. The majority distinguished the claims in the Ford cases from those in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. by emphasizing that the Ford cases involved in-state plaintiffs with claims for in-state injuries. The majority held that the standard for specific jurisdiction includes suits that sufficiently relate to a defendant’s contact with the forum state, even if that contact does not have a causal link to the claims in the suit. Justice Alito and Justice Gorsuch wrote concurring opinions that also upheld the exercise of personal jurisdiction based on the facts of the matters at hand, but questioned the standard the majority opinion used.
This decision does not disturb the decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb, as specific jurisdiction still will not extend to claims by non-resident plaintiffs against non-resident defendants whose product allegedly causes injury. In distinguishing the two cases, the Court held that in Bristol-Myers Squibb, “the plaintiffs were engaged in forum-shopping–suing in California because it was thought plaintiff-friendly, even though their cases had no tie to the State.” Comparatively, in the Ford matters, the plaintiffs were residents of the forum states, bought and used the vehicles in the forum states, and alleged injuries from product malfunctions in the forum states.
The “relate to” test used by the majority to determine specific jurisdiction may prove difficult for lower courts to apply. Justice Alito’s concurring opinion noted that the phrase is broad when defined by the ordinary meaning of the phrase, and “[t]o rein in this phrase, limits must be found.” Justice Alito feared that the majority’s opinion did not indicate what the limits on the test might be, and stated that specific jurisdiction should require at minimum a “rough causal connection”. Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion had a similar criticism of the majority’s opinion, arguing that while it “promises that its new test ‘does not mean anything goes, … [the test] hardly tells us what does.”
Therefore, following this decision, a product manufacturer’s showing that a plaintiff’s claim does not arise out of or is not causally related to the defendant’s conduct in the forum state may not be enough to establish that a court lacks personal jurisdiction. If a plaintiff can show that the claim sufficiently relates to the defendant’s conduct in the state, a court can find personal jurisdiction. This holding was limited in scope, as the Court noted that “[n]one of this is to say that any person using any means to sell any good in a State is subject to jurisdiction there if the product malfunction’s after arrival.” Yet, according to the Court “[w]hen a company like Ford serves a market for a product in a State and that product causes injury in the State to one of its residents, the State’s courts may entertain the resulting suit.” In cases like this, attorneys will now face the challenge of defining the limits of in-forum conduct and how that conduct relates to a claim brought in any particular matter.
For more information on this decision, or on this topic, please contact the author, John A. Bitetto III.